It’s been more than a decade since Jonathan Perry put on a Dunbar football jersey, yet the images still stick with him.
At the forefront are memories in relation to his former teammates and coaches, the ones he stood alongside as a quarterback for a Poets program that won three straight Class 1A state titles from 2006 to 2008. But just as prevalent are the flashbacks to seeing drugs, glass and needles on the practice fields.
Growing up in East Baltimore had its challenges and Perry didn’t realize just how “not normal” his childhood was until he got to the University of Alabama-Birmingham to continue his football playing career in college.
“When I went to school at UAB, the lifestyle is totally different from what we grew up in and see in Baltimore with the drugs, the murders and the crime rate,” he said. “That wasn’t present when I went to [college] and that’s something that I didn’t have to worry about. We come from a city where [there are] 300 homicides and I go to Birmingham and it’s maybe 30 or 40 in a year. That’s like the month of June in Baltimore.”
These days, Perry is doing his best to use his perspective to provide opportunities for Baltimore’s youth that may not have always been there in the past.
Perry teamed in 2019 with former Dunbar classmate Tavon Austin to help create the MPG Titans Youth Football and Cheer Association in Northeast Baltimore. Austin is an NFL wide receiver and return specialist for the Green Bay Packers, who are getting set to play in the NFC Championship Game this Sunday,
Having been to the heights of playing Division I football, Perry’s goal now is to become a guiding force in the lives of his players to hopefully achieve similar feats. Austin has similar goals.
So the two friends partnered. There were initial discussions about reviving the once-thriving Gardenville Gators program, but ultimately they decided to create something new.
“He’s my best friend,” Perry said of Austin. “Throughout college and throughout his pro career we’ve always talked about trying to find something to help and give back to the kids. I started coaching little league [football] in about 2014 or 2015 after coming back from Alabama. Something that he and I joked about was coming back and coaching little league together.”
The MPG Titans program had zero funding initially during the first few months as Perry got things going, which meant no helmets, no pads and other essential equipment to field a football and cheer association. Seeing the opportunity to promote the game, Austin became a willing benefactor to fund the team.
“Baltimore is a tough place, but I love every bit of it,” Austin said. “The challenges and hardships we faced on a daily alone was motivation enough for me. My city helped shape me into the man I am today. That constant pressure made me a diamond. I’ve always been passionate about giving back, not just anywhere, but to my city specifically. That’s extremely important to me.”
Over 200 players and a number of cheerleaders joined the program in 2019, with athletes between the ages of 3-13 participating within the organization. There were no in-person activities during 2020 due to the restrictions in place in relation to the coronavirus pandemic, but the plan is to ramp activities back up this year as regulations allow.
Austin, 30, played youth football for the Hanlon Park Cardinals, then went on to play for the Gwynns Fall 49ers. He and Perry, 29, went on to star at Dunbar. Austin rushed for 2,660 yards and 34 touchdowns as a senior in 2008 and Perry finished that same season with 1,800 passing yards and 19 touchdown passes.
The plan to give back came together over the years, with Austin heading to West Virginia and eventually being drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft and Perry returning home to Baltimore in 2014 after his time at UAB. Perry joined the board of directors for the Gardenville Gators recreational football program that first year back and has stayed involved with the local scene ever since.
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Perry’s plans for the future are to get players to go on the road, playing against other programs outside of the state of Maryland and to attend games. Austin would like to showcase that there are people out there that care about them and, to go along with that, he’s become hands-on with the program.
The Packers wide receiver consistently interacts with the children on social media and attends practices when he’s in town. Austin looks to make sure that the players are taken care of and nurtured — looking to see a change sparked within them.
During his eight-year NFL career, while playing for three different organizations, Austin has compiled totals of 220 receptions for 2,026 yards to go along with 1,340 rushing yards and he’s scored a combined 25 touchdowns. Whenever the time comes to talk retirement, Austin says coaching is definitely something he’s interested in.
“Goals after football would consist of continuing to build my family,” Austin said. “I can definitely see myself coaching, I’m not sure what level, but I do love teaching and giving back what I’ve learned on this journey of mine. Yeah, Coach Tay does have a nice ring to it.”